Jill Blee is a remarkable woman: born in Ballarat where she now lives again, she is a ‘late bloomer’ as an author after a very varied career in Melbourne and Sydney. From an old article in The Age, I’ve learned that after school she trained as an industrial chemist, but like many women of her generation, she gave up work to have a family. When her marriage broke down she started a picture framing business, then sold insurance, and then was a factory manager. At 35 when her youngest started school, she started an arts degree, and – her interest in history fired by helping her children with projects – she went on to complete two Master of Arts degrees and a PhD, working as a live-in boarding-school housemistress so that she could study by day. And at 50 she began to write. I’ve previously reviewed Brigid (1999) and The Liberator’s Birthday (2002), and … without knowing it was Blee’s work as an historical researcher that I was watching, I’ve also seen some of the Doctor Blake Mysteries, set in Ballarat!
The Pines Hold Their Secrets (1988) is her first novel. It’s historical fiction, set on Norfolk Island during its period as a notorious penal settlement. Elise Cartwright travels with her family from the penal settlement in Hobart to Norfolk Island where her father – transferring under some unspecified cloud – has accepted a lesser position as Superintendent of Agriculture. He had been one of the most important men in Van Diemen’s Land and his silly wife is very conscious of her social position, fussing over frocks and what’s ‘appropriate’ and always manoeuvring to ensure that her three daughters marry well. Elise, an independent minded young woman in her early twenties, chafes at the social niceties and thus comes into brief contact with a convict called O’Shaughnessy while they are on board the Porpoise.
On Norfolk Island Elise is haunted by O’Shaughnessy’s enigmatic plea for help to prove his innocence, but can’t do anything about it. And despite Mrs Cartright’s best efforts to shield herself and her girls from anything unpleasant, before long all kinds of horrors are revealed, all reasonably consistent with what we know of Australia’s history as a penal colony. While there are a couple of rather melodramatic moments that test credulity as the novel reaches its climax, the plot rattles along quite well and the characters are generally well-drawn.
Academic study can sometimes infect the authenticity of dialogue in a novel but not so in The Pines Hold Their Secrets. Blee has a crisp, effective style, conveying in this example both the possibility of romance emerging in this unlikely place and the rudimentary nature of justice :
Orders were being given to the troops. The other ladies were walking together across the common to their homes on Military Row.
‘What’s going to happen?’ Elise asked, still holding onto Smith’s jacket.
‘The judge will pronounce the sentences. That’s why he’s here.’
‘Oh, what will they be?’ Tears were running down her face. Smith took out his handkerchief to catch them.
‘Two will hang, I believe. The others will be flogged.’
‘Which two? Do you know names?’
‘Not yet.’ (p.97)
The Pines Hold Their Secrets is engaging light reading, enhanced by a setting not often used in Australian novels. For the Term of His Natural Life comes to mind, of course, and no doubt Norfolk Island’s most famous resident Colleen McCullough set one of her novels there, but I can’t think of any others.
(It just crossed my mind that I could start categorising my reading by settings, but noooo, I’m going to resist that thought!)
Author: Jill Blee
Title: The Pines Hold Their Secrets
Publisher: Indra Publishing, 1998
Source: personal library, purchased from the author’s blog which seems not to have been active since 2013. However I poked around on Facebook and found out about a new limited edition book called Cuthberts: A Ballarat Institution, so Blee is still writing…
Availability: It looks as if it’s out of print. There are active links to Amazon for some of Blee’s titles on her blog but not for this novel. Try your library or secondhand bookshops.